Security officials gave Tory MP Bob Dechert a thumbs up months after he sent flirtatious emails to a journalist working for a state-run news agency linked to China's intelligence services.
Mr. Dechert, as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice, passed a fresh round of cabinet security checks in March of this year, a newly disclosed document indicates.
The briefing note for Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlines the results of a renewed security review of all cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries.
Mr. Harper ordered cabinet-security clearances every two years in the wake of the Maxime Bernier affair in 2008. The Quebec MP, who was then Foreign Affairs minister, forgot a secret briefing binder at the home of his girlfriend, who had links to biker gangs.
The March 24 document from the Privy Council Office, marked “secret,” was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
“The renewal of background checks on members of the ministry and parliamentary secretaries has been finalized,” says the note, signed by Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council.
“In 2008, the Prime Minister requested that security background checks on Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries, and their spouses or partners, be renewed every two years while the appointee occupies a position as Minister, Minister of State or Parliamentary Secretary.”
Further details in the note are censored. But Dechert retained his position as parliamentary secretary immediately after the March security check – and became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the cabinet shuffle soon after the May 2 election campaign. (He’d been in the justice portfolio since March of 2010.)
Last week, Mr. Dechert acknowledged sending amorous notes to Shi Rong, a journalist who works for the Xinhua News Agency, which has been linked to China's intelligence agencies. He insisted the relationship was “innocent.”
“The person is a journalist whom I have come to know as a friend. I met her while doing Chinese-language media communications,” Mr. Dechert said in a statement posted on his website. “These emails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship.”
The Globe and Mail reported that Ms. Shi said her husband had hacked her email account, which Mr. Dechert appeared to reiterate. “My understanding is that her emails were hacked as part of an ongoing domestic dispute,” he said in the statement.
The flirtatious emails, distributed anonymously to almost 250 recipients last week, date back to 2010.
A spokesman for Mr. Harper had no comment when asked whether the Prime Minister's Office or Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office got a briefing about Mr. Dechert's relationship with Shi. Mr. Baird had no comment Monday.
Mr. Dechert also wasn't immediately available for comment Monday.
The relationship, if known to the government, should have raised red flags, given that a public servant was fired from her job in the Privy Council Office because she once worked for the same news agency.
Chinese-born Canadian Haiyan Zhang, then a rising star in Ottawa's civil service, caught the attention of Canada's spy agency shortly after being hired to work at PCO in February 2003.
A September 2003 letter from PCO, referenced in a Public Service Labour Relations Board decision on her case, says that based on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service assessment, there were concerns about her loyalty to Canada.
“Our first concern is that, particularly as a former employee of the New China News Agency (aka Xinhua News Agency), you may have engaged in intelligence collection activities on behalf of a foreign state,” the PCO letter says.
“Secondly, we are concerned that you appear to maintain regular contact with foreign representatives who may be involved in intelligence collection activities.
“These concerns raise serious doubt as to whether you should be granted or should retain a government security clearance.”
Xinhua, created by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s to handle revolutionary propaganda, has grown into a multimedia empire with offices across the world and throughout China. It is run by the Chinese government in Beijing.
It is also widely known in western intelligence agencies to have links to China's intelligence services, a former senior intelligence official with CSIS told The Canadian Press.
“Basically, it's a cover,” said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, who now heads a private corporate security company.
“We're not talking about just people collaborating with the intelligence services. We're talking about people trained as intelligence officers to operate in foreign countries.”
Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said CSIS keeps tabs on Xinhua journalists in Canada, so Mr. Dechert's relationship with Ms. Shi should have raised “all the red flags you can think of.”
“So we've got here a serious breach in this exercise. Because this person should have revealed his relationship with that woman, a relationship that from the get-go never should have existed, period,” he said.
CSIS director Richard Fadden has suggested some Canadian politicians are influenced by foreign governments. He singled out China as particularly aggressive.
Mr. Dechert accompanied the Prime Minister to China in 2009, and clippings from a local Mississauga, Ont., newspaper suggest he has a keen interest in Chinese business and trade.
According to his disclosure to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner's office, Mr. Dechert and his wife Ruth Clark accepted an all-expense-paid trip to Taiwan in January of 2010.
China and Taiwan split amid a civil war in 1949, and relations remain rocky to this day. Beijing still considers the island part of its territory.
The Chinese International Economic Co-operation paid a total of $5,697 for Mr. Dechert and Clark's nine-day trip, including hotel, food and meals.
The purpose of the trip was to “promote binational economic co-operation,” according to Mr. Dechert's public statement of sponsored travel.
Mr. Baird has two parliamentary secretaries. Mr. Dechert's responsibilities are for North America, not Asia, a government source told The Canadian Press.
The main role of parliamentary secretaries is to answer questions in the House of Commons when the minister is absent. They don't normally have access to secret cabinet-level information, and the only information Mr. Dechert likely had were briefing notes to answer Opposition queries in question period, the source said Saturday.
Another government source confirmed that Mr. Dechert does not handle Asia-Pacific matters, and said there is no record of him being briefed on anything related to China.